The paradigmatic auteur maudit, Donald Cammell was always more legendary than praiseworthy. He had all the trappings of a myth: rugged beauty, high Scottish birth,
innate artistic brilliance, orgies, drugs, models, rock stars, fierce uncompromisability, mental anguish, suicide, an
acquaintance with Aleister Crowley, and a tortured handful of movies as innovative as
they are, finally, high-flying monkeyshines. To hear tell of it, Cammell emerged from the ’50s Chelsea set an all-pistons-firing genius, and yet his earthly remains suggest his idol
Antonin Artaud’s unfocused oeuvre too closely for comfort. True, Cammell never went mad, and his films’ wacky unevenness is often due to production
interference, but his decadent
dissolution cries out for crazy-artist genuflection.
In shooting himself in 1996, he’s got a leg up in the cult
market over fellow crash-and-burners Monte Hellman, Jim McBride, Dennis Hopper, and Alex Cox, but his tone remains too groovy, his material too haphazardly Dionysian, to gain a new audience today. Still, the necessarily brief AMMI retro, which includes a worshipful new BBC bio-doc Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance set to run on IFC concurrently, might win some converts. After all, in their very fractiousness, Cammell’s movies are dazzlingly entertaining. His first and
most notorious, Performance (1970, codirected with first-timer Nicolas Roeg), is a
rubber-room time capsule of late ’60s London; as the
documentary painstakingly makes clear, Cammell was the moment’s Richelieu, with even Mick Jagger as eager courtier. Extraordinary claims are still made for the film in England, but Performance is a woefully dated and silly, if spirited, Age of Aquarius document, an Easy Rider of doppelgangers, threesomes, and nonstop jump cuts.
It made Cammell, but not
his career. Demon Seed (1977), a woman-raped-by-a-computer thriller he took as a job, is, like The Stepford Wives , neglected ’70s pulp that today seems stunningly eloquent. White of the Eye (1985) is a hyperactive serial-killer study that more than makes up in head-shaking hyperbole what it lacks in coherence. And Wild Side (1995), Cammell’s abortive demi-noir pitting Christopher Walken, Joan Chen, and Anne Heche at each other in a lusty sex-and-crime act-out, was recut and dropped onto cable. Like many before him, Cammell was addicted to movies but unsuited to Hollywood. In another universe, he’d be a martyr.